IPT Book Reviews

Title: Heroes of Their Own LivesNegative Review
Author: Linda Gordon
Publisher: Viking 1988

Penguin U.S.A.
40 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10010


The author, a historian, reports on her study of sexual and physical violence in Boston, Massachusetts between 1880 and 1960.  The book consists of nine chapters, involving court records, court proceedings, and pardon files covering 2,274 violent episodes over 80 years.  The author indicates how social values (never static) shaped society's intervention into sexual abuse and shaped social service agencies.  Unfounded cases are not discussed.


The study does not deal with violence towards men and thus reflects both the immigrant's value system and the author's bias.  She is pro-feminist and child-rights oriented, and this prejudices her book.  There is little mention of fathers or fathers' rights.  She admits she acquired her sex-abuse history from her students alone (p. viii) but does not state the limitations and assumptions of her study.

Although she admits to the historical poverty of the records, she uses them anyway without adequate qualification.  (See, for example, P. Aries, Centuries of Childhood (Paperback) and L. Pollock's Forgotten Children (Paperback) for different historical results for the same period using different sets of records.)  For example, she focuses on immigrant social service records, despite the fact that sexual abuse occurs in all social classes in America.

Her narrow perspective on family power and its social control agencies results in her overlooking the power of job, factory, court and the farm in her analysis.  She fails to look beyond man-woman relationships for the broader social power of institutions as shapers of family violence.  She neither maintains a consistent perspective nor provides more than a superficial analysis of sociological events.  At one point she cautions the reader not to blame the victim, yet she does so herself by blaming families.  She further trashes the concept of adolescent rights as well as the early efforts of social workers to improve conditions for women.  She recites as evidence the discrimination against immigrant groups that took place by social workers (much like Blacks and women today), and further describes the clients of social work agencies in 1910 as not being "frank" with social workers because of the ability of men to disrupt the lives of their families.

The book makes sweeping assertions without historical supports.  There is unnecessary social work bashing, stating for example, that agency records on incest (1910-1920) were covered up by social workers who blamed the problem on female unemployment.  The author's mistake is her presumption that social workers could do anything they wanted to do, ignoring what we know of the governmental and organizational bureaucracy.  She assumes social agencies have their own lives and are not reflective of broad social-political pressures.  To the extent that social workers are female, the author has done a disservice to all women.

Reviewed by LeRoy Schultz, School of Social Work, West Virginia University.

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